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How Hall courthouse is preparing for first trial in a year

Months of meetings, strategy sessions and deferred plans have led to the presumed return of trials next week on Wednesday, March 10, in Hall County.

If Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton lifts the ban on jury trials in the statewide judicial emergency order, a trial over drug possession before Superior Court Judge Bonnie Oliver will be the first case since the yearlong trial shutdown.

Court officials said 150 potential jurors have been summoned.

“In the past, you’d have 70 people reporting at 8 a.m,” staff attorney Caitlin May said. “Instead, we’re going to have 20 people at a time in panels reporting so that we’d don’t ever have that many people.”

A video on the Northeastern Judicial Circuit’s website walks people through what health and safety measures are in place. Court administrator Jason Stephenson said jurors would be issued KN95 masks.

May said all jurors, attorneys and the judge will be wearing a mask, and jurors will be issued their own pens to avoid sharing.

Sitting outside of the usual jury box, the jurors will be in the gallery separated by 6 feet and one every other row.

Another full courtroom will be used for jury deliberations, May said.

“They will have a lot more room than the normal jury deliberation room so that they can sit 6 feet apart the entire time,” May said.

The jury box will be the new witness stand, which will have plexiglass to allow the witness to testify without a mask.

“There are a lot of discussions about when the jury is deciding whether they find a witness credible or not. Facial expressions are really important for that,” May said.

Because the jury will be in the gallery, the press and others wishing to watch the proceedings can view a livestream in a room on the first floor.

Only one trial will be held next week.

Almost a year ago, assistant public defender Matt Leipold was polling jurors during jury selection in the DeMarvin Bennett murder case. 

Bennett was accused of fatally shooting Jack Hough Feb. 7, 2019, in the CVS Pharmacy parking lot on Park Hill Drive in Gainesville.

Leipold said Friday, March 5, that the trial is now set for April 26.

Stephenson previously discussed the issue of the court’s backlog. In late February, there were 338 defendants awaiting trial on felony charges in the Hall County Jail.

Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender Brad Morris said it is currently hard to tell what the effects of the yearlong prohibition on trials will be for the backlog.

“You go to trial, you might get 20 to 30 years or life in jail, or you might be acquitted,” Morris said. “It’s just a very, very big moment in a person’s life, and you want to be able to present that person’s case.”

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